The 6 People You Have to Be When Line Editing Your Novel by JC Lillis

Posted by on Aug 22, 2014 in Editing Wizardry, Writing | 4 comments

The 6 People You Have to Be When Line Editing Your Novel by JC Lillis

The 6 People You Have to Be When Line Editing Your Novel
by J.C. Lillis


You’ve fixed plot holes. You’ve cut 7k from your flabby second draft. You’ve gotten rid of that pesky flat character who did nothing but whine and eat all the nectarines. Now your story’s a working machine, and it’s time to rub on that coat of polish that makes it all sleek and glossy.

Whether you do your own line edits or edit for others, here are six people you have to be while you shine up your sentences.

1. The Nightclub Doorman

Okay, so in your first draft you let in ALL THE WORDS, and in your next few drafts you streamlined and tightened the heck outta that plot, right? Line editing is when you get REALLY snobby and exclusive. Stand at the velvet rope and scrutinize the words; they all want in, but you know better. Tell those extra “that”s and “just”s and “very”s to take a hike. Allow some adverbs, but only ones that have their own thing going on and don’t repeat everything the nouns just said. Some words might be pretty but empty—a couple peacocks are fine here and there, but too many and there’s bird crap everywhere. Make every word tell you why it needs to be there. If it can’t, boot it out.
The Doorman

2. The Poet

At this point in your editing adventure, you’re probably communicating the right things with your sentences. Now it’s all about rhythm and flow. Sometimes just changing one or two words around can make an okay sentence awesome, so put in the extra time and shoot for the awesome. Try reading some poetry you love during the break you take before your line edits—whether it’s Shakespeare, Stevie Smith, or Shel Silverstein. Hearing the music in their language will help you make sentences sing.
The Poet


3. The Lie Detector

Remember that show Lie to Me? I don’t, really, so I have to go IMDb it to see if this example makes sense. *zips off* *zips back* Right, so the guy on Lie to Me could zero in on tiny, subtle clues to figure out if someone was being less than genuine, and that’s what you’ve got to do to ensure authenticity. Put on your Lie Detector cap with the beeping antennae. Interrogate your paragraphs and round up Evidence of Fishiness. If a word or image sets off your radar—even for a second—reexamine it and consider replacing.
The Lie Detector


4. The Acting Coach

I’m right in the middle of an ill-advised Dawson’s Creek rewatch, and damn, I forgot how many times Katie Holmes would do the 1) hair tuck 2) lopsided grin 3) single-shoulder shrug in a single episode. Don’t let this happen to your characters: be a good acting coach, and do a careful reread with a critical eye on their tics. Little physical quirks help build character, but too much of the same action and you’ve got a drinking game waiting to happen. Do searches for common body parts—eyebrow, nose, lips, hair, shoulders—and make sure your characters aren’t abusing theirs.

The Acting Coach


5. The Trading-Card Collector

You collect wonderful words because you’re a writer, and you probably have your favorites. But as seasoned card collectors know, you don’t need three “ashen”s. Or four “diaphanous”es, especially not in the space of two chapters. So keep a running list of standout words in your manuscript—ones you especially like, and ones you already sense you might overuse. I call my list “Word Bewares,” but you don’t have to be that dorky. During line edits, do a search for each one and swap duplicates for fresher options. (I’m always surprised to see how much I lean on certain words I like, even when I thought I just used them once or twice.)

The Trading Card Collector
6. The Director

Sometimes you’re so focused on lean and mean that you hit a scene with the opposite problem: characters who forgot to interact with their setting. It’s in your head, but it’s not on the page. I like this trick: if I could move the scene to an empty room without editing much out, I could probably stand to add a few more details.

It’s not a hard thing to fix in line edits—just put on your director beret. A single bit of great blocking can not only illuminate character, but also make her real and relatable. Pick a line of dialogue you want to emphasize, and then look for setting-specific actions that reflect or reinforce it. If your character’s scared of losing control, maybe she corrects a typo on the menu. If he’s slyly causing trouble, maybe he picks at a hole in the red vinyl tablecloth. Don’t break your scene’s momentum with a paragraph about the yellow bowls that make him think of his sixth birthday party—just a couple small, specific details can elevate your scene and make the most of your setting.

The Director


How about you? What hats do you put on when you line edit? Any questions about the stuff I suggested? Ask away!

J.C. Lillis lives in Baltimore with her patient family and a ragtag band of tropical fish, some of which will be dead by the time you read this. WE WON’T FEEL A THING is her second YA novel; she also wrote HOW TO REPAIR A MECHANICAL HEART, because she wanted to read a book about two sci-fi fanboys in love and there wasn’t one handy. She loves koi ponds, abandoned amusement parks, and peanut butter & banana sandwiches. She hates paper cuts, cabbage, and writing bios.

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  1. “She has done this 46 times…” and “He sighs a lot…”

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who edits this way, haha!

  2. I love this! I’m finally getting ready to write my book and this kind of stuff is exactly what I need to have in my editing arsenal. Thank you!

  3. This is great. Makes me realise why I love editing!

  4. Greetings! As an audiobook narrator, I can’t tell you how much I love this fabulous list, especially The Acting Coach! Your funny graphics could also be labeled “things the audiobook narrator thought while recording this book”. :)

    With more authors now creating audiobooks, you could add The Audiobook Narrator as the 7th key person the author should emulate when editing.

    To play the Audiobook Narrator, the author needs to READ EVERY WORD ALOUD. Even if the author doesn’t plan to create an audiobook, vocalizing every single word is the best way to discover all of the things you wrote about and some you didn’t, including:

    — typos, including character name changes
    — sentences full of alliteration that may look great on paper but are not easy to say, particularly if performed in the character’s accent
    — any words or phrases that are difficult or awkward to voice (Narrators universally would like to remove the words “clasped”, “gasped”, and “grasped” from the dictionary. Say each one followed by the word “the”, and you’ll understand.)
    — homonyms that are used as part of a visual joke on paper but lose their cleverness when spoken
    — grammatical problems like subject/verb disagreement
    — plot/logic problems

    Body parts and trading card words aren’t the only parts of speech often overused in a book. Authors frequently rely on the same mundane verb or noun within a section or throughout the text. When you hear yourself saying the same word repeatedly, it may be time to edit some more!

    The more smoothly the manuscript flows when spoken, the better the writing.

    Thanks for compiling this excellent list!

    Karen Commins
    My audiobooks on Audible:


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